In 2010, my classmates at the Weill Cornell PA program gave me the privilege of speaking at our Certificate and Awards Ceremony for graduation. I am honored that eight years later, I was invited invited back as guest speaker by the Program Faculty to address this year's graduating class of 2018 on May 30th. Much of what I said during my first speech holds true today.
Program faculty honored me with an induction into Pi Alpha - The National Honor Society for Physician Assistants for contribution and service to our Profession.
It was a wonderful end to celebrate Brain Tumor Awareness Month and four years on May 13th since having brain tumor surgery and starting this humbling journey of recovery. Grateful to have been joined by friend/sister and 2010 alumnus Christina Pratt.
Dear Faculty and distinguished guests, I am honored to have the opportunity to address the graduating class of 2018. I’d like to start with one of my favorite quotes:
This quote was made by a man who was a military leader, governor, and the 26th President of the United States of America, Theodore Roosevelt. This quote should resonate with many of you as you look back and consider the amazing achievements you have made here. Remember the struggles, sacrifices, and promises you made yourself a little over two years ago. Think back to that first day you met your peers and observed them as they stood bravely and introduced themselves. You made mental notes of where they came from, what they accomplished before coming to PA school, and what inspired them to want to become PAs. Two years later, think about the journey you have taken since, the difficult and joyous times you have faced, and the bonds you have made together. Today dear graduates, we celebrate this friendship and we celebrate this beautiful journey.
Don’t let the smiling faces today fool you though. This journey has been long and has been difficult at times, forcing you to question your strength, competency, motivation, faith, and devotion. For many of you, it was difficult to be far from those you love and far from the comforts of a previous life. However, you soon found a surrogate family within your program. Today, as you collect your diplomas, these impressive certificates capturing in few words the awesome achievements you have made during your time here, please remember, that there has been so much you have gained in life in addition to what you gained in the classroom. So much that you have learned through friendships, relationships, and chance encounters.
In addition to all you have learned, I too would like to share with you some wisdom I have gained through my personal experience. I was a caregiver during PA school for my mother when she was diagnosed with AML and who ultimately succumbed to her illness. After a short leave, I returned and completed my degree and became a PA.
In 2014, after having only practiced a few years as a surgical PA, I underwent an elective procedure to have a benign brain tumor removed. Initially, I was expecting to discharge and return home a few days after surgery, but instead, became completely paralyzed on my entire right side and unable to identify one half of my body. I was 32 years old.
I was transferred to a rehab facility where after the eventual and painful realization that the landscape of my life had completely changed, I underwent aggressive physical, occupational, and speech therapy to establish what is now my new normal.
From my experience, I have learned that life does not always go according to our plans. It can change suddenly and sometimes drastically. Often, the thing we expect the least to occur is exactly the thing that does and that we find it is that very thing, that we need the most, to change who we are and to change how we appreciate what we have been blessed to have and will have in the future.
My experience as a brain tumor survivor is not unique in that I am an ordinary person who has been humbled by extraordinary circumstances. However, my perspective of this experience is unique as a Physician Assistant. Many of the things that I found most troubling were things I ordered for my own patients consistently and never thought twice about simply because either patients never complained or sometimes I was just too busy. For example, too busy to remember to cancel the order for finger sticks for a non-diabetic patient transferred from the ICU… BUT I REMEMBERED when it was my fingers that were stuck needlessly. Talk about karma. To say that I have been humbled would be an understatement.
Although knowing that there is always uncertainty can be at times unsettling it should not however; prevent us from dreaming and planning for the future. If nothing else, this sense of hope and determination allows us to have something to look forward to, the next day and for the rest of our lives. Whilst in rehab, once I could read and comprehend my phone texts, naturally I decided it was time to apply for a job, …completely discounting the fact that I was still paralyzed and a three person assist for basic functions. I stayed up late one night and the nurse found me finalizing my application for an academic position that I had my heart set on at the University of Bridgeport PA program. After inquiring why I was up late I said very matter of fact, “I’m just submitting my application for a job.” Stunned, she only replied, “I see”, and left.
The next morning, I was somewhat reprimanded by medical staff and counseled to see my new disability and recovery as a vacation. I was told that it would be unlikely I could return to work for a few years at least. After they left my room I felt disheartened and disappointed by the thought of functioning as anything but a PA and considered their suggestion. Unable to accept their bleak perspective, I instead answered enthusiastically when UB called me for an interview that same afternoon. After explaining my situation I was encouraged to call back when physically ready and told that my interview spot would be held if still available. It gave me hope and five months later when I was finally walking independently in my driveway, I interviewed and was hired two days later.
Today I am the Academic Director for the University of Bridgeport PA Program. Since surgery, I have also returned to clinical practice in Addiction Medicine, providing primary care for patients undergoing detoxification. My disability gives me A LOT of street credibility with my patients as it serves as a reminder to them, that we are all recovering from something.
My commitment to patient care and patient advocacy extends beyond clinical practice in that I am a volunteer for the American Brain Tumor Association, an Ambassador for the Connecticut Brain Tumor Alliance and recently, elected as a member of the Board of Directors. One of the best backhanded compliments I have received since my surgery is, “for a disabled person, you sure do a lot.”
I share this not only to highlight how amazing I am, because well I am, but also, so that you can be conscious of your own vulnerability to change and be sensitive to that same vulnerability in the lives of your patients and the lives of their loved ones. Remember that compassion cannot be taught just by words alone, it is a quality that is appreciated in others and developed and fine-tuned within us. As a patient, I experienced firsthand how crippling fear and doubt can be in dampening one’s spirits. So, don’t doubt your patients, you’d be surprised how far someone will go to regain some semblance of normalcy and to accomplish great things simply because they believe they can. With that said, don’t doubt yourself. You’d be surprised what you can accomplish because you believe you can. And like L’Oréal says, because YOU’RE WORTH IT!
Famous words attributed to JM Barrie about compassion, which have resonated with me for the past twelve years as a caregiver, clinician, and survivor are, “Be kinder than necessary, for EVERYONE you meet is fighting some kind of battle”.
Along with compassion, one must also be in constant appreciation of the various blessings we have in our lives. As an alumnus from this amazing institution, I too join you in your celebration of success at Cornell. With all that we have gained from our time at Cornell, we will always remember to give thanks to those who have given their time for our benefit. We give thanks to those who have been forthcoming with knowledge it has taken them years to acquire, but only a few weeks each, for us to absorb the superficial details. We give thanks to those who have allowed for extra time in their busy day so that we may have additional time to practice our clinical skills. We give thanks to the patients and their loved ones, who did not fear our short white coats, who did not fear our beads of perspiration, and for those patients who did not hesitate to be the guinea pigs as we made our first attempts.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote,
As you complete your transition into the next phase of your professional careers, think back to your program and remember how blessed you were to have had the opportunity to attend such a prestigious institution. Be proud of your status as a graduate from one of only two Ivy League PA programs in the country. You were amongst the elite few who were chosen to be a part of the Class of 2018 at Cornell.
Give thanks to your program faculty for providing you with their guidance and support. Thank them for opening doors to institutions such as NYP Columbia, Cornell, Queens, to Memorial Sloan Kettering, and to HSS. These institutions, which are held in high esteem the world over, welcomed you and allowed you to be taken under the wings of some of the world’s most brilliant minds. What a privilege it has been not only academically, but from a personal experience as well to shadow clinicians who are considered pioneers in their respective specialties.
And now graduates, distinguished guests, and to the members of the Cornell community, I conclude my time here with you today. Graduates, let me again congratulate you and remind to feel proud of what you have achieved. Take with you the awe and respect for the human body and its many conditions and continue to seek knowledge even as you practice.
Think fondly of your alma mater, it has made you the competent clinician you are today. With that, remember always the strength and determination with which you achieved success in a difficult and challenging program and let that prevent you from doubting your ability in the future. With that, do not doubt your patients either, as they will continue to amaze you when you least expect it with their perseverance, faith, and perhaps good fortune. Be sensitive to the disposition and vulnerability in the lives of your patients and their loved ones. It is what differentiates a good clinician from one that is merely present.
As you don your long white coats and embark into clinical practice, remember that it carries with it a beautiful privilege coupled with tremendous responsibility. I know you will love being a PA and will contribute to the profession greatly. Lastly, remember to be kind, be humble, and be compassionate.
All the best. God bless. THANK YOU
@WeillCornell @UBridgeport @theABTA @CTBTA @AAPA